Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Barely two days after alighting on Sri Lankan soil for the first time, I attended a camp for young people promoting religious and ethnic reconciliation after the war. “You’re going right in the deep end,” I was told with a laugh. The camp involved a group of about fifty young people ages eighteen to twenty-eight, who had come from all over the tear-drop shaped island, including metropolitan areas like Kandy and Colombo, to Jaffna and Batticaloa, home to farmers and fishermen. It was structured around various seminars relating to how to react in the aftermath of the war — the importance of perspective, the root of fighting, how to build trust.

Questions were asked such as “What is a fight?” “What is a disagreement?” “What are the reasons behind bloodshed?” These discussions were lead in part by victims of the war, from both the Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhalese sides. You cannot move on and forget the past; the wounds that have developed within people don’t just vanish, especially if they are not addressed or legitimized, they insisted. The only way to move on is for people to obtain justice. Fighting can be a way for society to move forward. It is a person’s human right to speak out against whatever oppresses them, to react. But the way in which this reaction manifests itself is of the utmost importance. An older Tamil woman in a striped shirt and skirt stood up and told the audience that these young people were the future — this was the generation that would help restore Sri Lanka.

What struck me most after hearing that, is how much affirmation I have taken for granted. I have heard the phrase “Youth are the Future” declared with brazen self-assurance countless times, in auditoriums, classrooms and playing fields since I was a child. But I have never heard it while sitting among young people who have had the burden of witnessing their families and their country ravaged by war and racial violence. The Sri Lankan civil war lasted nearly thirty years. To many, the years up until thirty are considered the prime of one’s youth. Thirty is the age my mother was when she gave birth to me. She had lived an entire life before then, and she would recount the stories of her past with gratitude and tenderness. Many Sri Lankans, however, particularly in the rural areas in the North and East, experienced their childhood, their youth, their old age, alongside the jarring sound of detonating bombs and gunfire.

The speaker who most captivated me was a man who had joined the LTTE as a youth, the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam, a militant organization based in the North and the East that fought for Tamil rights. After the war severed him from his family, he was completely bereft of any comfort or love in a country tearing itself to pieces. His story was not what struck me, but the fact that he was unable to finish it, breaking down in tears and retreating back into the group. He bent over the chair with his face in the palm of one of his hands, the other hand clutching a paper airplane. His, expertly folded, had flown the farthest out of the entire group.

The discussions to follow throughout the next couple days involved spreading the messages of Truth, Reconciliation, Mercy, Peace and Justice. Some examples brought forward, involving the detrimental nature of violence on the part of the LTTE, made him visibly uncomfortable, almost defensive. He still harbored a strong sense of filial piety for the organization, that resonated with some sense of belonging. The motivation for such camps, such exercises, is partly a reaction to that phenomenon. What makes a man, abandoned as a child, decide he wants to join a guerrilla group that repays blood with blood? And even more remarkably, what makes that man later turn to religious freedom reconciliation efforts?

Some would say that there is a yearning in all of us for the divine, a hole, a sort of pocket tailored into us by our Omnipotent God that can only be filled with worship. In countries like Sri Lanka and India, rife with scenes of devotion — temple offerings, masses, the call to namaz — this is easy to believe. The Romanian sociologist Mircea Eliade and his contemporaries believed that once a man discovered religion, once he became a Homo Religiosus, he was forever changed — he could never go back to a life separate from the metaphysical. There seems to be great evidence for this In Sri Lanka, a country where there is still great reverence for the sacred despite the opposing efforts of modernity.

At lunch one day, the question was brought up of whether violence against another is every truly justified, in response to the former LTTE member’s decision to join their forces years ago. We decided that that was not the most pressing question, rather, to what extent is a person, having suffered to such a degree, deserving of compassion?

As I observed the young people, I saw that they were genuinely invested in peacebuilding. The second day, a puppeteer came to lend a visual perspective to the issue of religious freedom. He split up the campers into groups of four, instructing us to put on a play relating to violence in Sri Lanka. I watched as twenty-eight year old men and women painstakingly glued yarn onto wooden ladles, and cut dresses out of cardboard as if clothing their children. Their performances were thought-provoking, often a combination of Tamil, Sinhala and occasionally, English. They touched upon the difficulty of harboring so many different creeds underneath one flag, political violence and corruption. One particularly memorable play discussed Buddhists who were disturbed by music from the mosque, and Muslims who were disturbed by music from the Buddhist temple —  sounds of the sacred clashing.

As a lover of words, someone who experiences life largely through conversation, it was difficult to relinquish control and attempt, with clumsy hand-motions, to begin a friendship without them. I found however, that this was not so bad, as sometimes, when there is no common language, you relinquish your pretensions. It is a sacrifice for both parties, a challenge. You communicate instead in smiles and nods —  the face is the canvas, the channel of expression. Human emotion and the way it is manifested through gestures is a universal language in itself.

To establish a real, authentic human connection with someone whom you disagree with or cannot comprehend is no trivial thing. Such things require time, emotional investment. “People want to mind their own business while others are fighting,” said one of the speakers. Biology can identify organs, psychology can diagnose trauma, Medicine can cure illness — this has been established. But unless there is a sense of communion unhindered by prejudice, no true healing can occur.  “Results are the fruit that tumbles on the ground,” was one of the most significant messages of the camp. The analogy suggests that things that have fallen for a while have the capacity to rise up again; the fruit sprouts and grows, just as the future redeems the past.


Homage to Gerald, Father of Stray Dogs

A few days ago, a man I knew in India passed away. His name was Gerald Jayaraj. Gerald was the type of eccentric elderly fellow you read about in books — his hairline, although receding, was meticulously dyed jet black, and he stubbornly rode around on a sputtering motorcycle right up until his death. Although our home was directly opposite his, he and his wife Meera rarely ventured outside due to their many physical ailments. Despite his acute joint pain, however, Gerald usually made his way up the road to church on Sundays, with his hat, cane, and unevenly-dyed mustache, and one could hear him grunt in mingled agreement and resignation at sermons referencing the thorn in the side of St. Paul. On an everyday basis, he wandered around in worn white vests graced with curry stains secured in place by black suspenders, petting the stray dogs lying near his front gate.

At a dog-themed birthday celebration of mine many years ago, he stood up to recite a poem about canine loyalty he had written for the occasion. Sharing his little contribution, the wizened face and prominent jowls which gave him an expression of perpetual grumpiness flushed, for the moment, with great affection. Gerald’s brief poem concluded with the winning line : “…and when you spell “Dog” backwards, it spells the name of God!” My grandmother, a contemporary of his at seventy-five, took care of abandoned children, and Gerald did what he could for abandoned dogs. They would flock to his gate in the mornings, awaiting their metal bowls of rice and meat. He would reach over to stroke their matted, flea-ridden hair, and they would bark sorrowfully after him when he retreated inside.

I have always wanted to remember men like Gerald. Not because of any great feat on their part, but because of their distinct originality and their complete lack of presumption. I barely knew him, but I had seen him enough times for him to have made an impression. Gerald seemed, to me, to be one of the last remnants of a life unhindered by self-examination. His wife was a great beauty in her youth, her cheekbones are still high and rigid, her hair is still thick and long. I wondered, sometimes, when I saw the drooping, liver-spotted skin around his eyes, what their love story was, and how it came to be that someone as dour and ordinary as Gerald had won her as his wife.

Maybe my admiration for Gerald lies mostly in what he wasn’t rather than what he was. And there is a sadness to that as well. Throughout my seventeen years, I never heard mention of any children, any family visits. It is possible that is why so much attention was devoted to the unruly street dogs. Or it could be that my nostalgic, rose-tinted vision of him is colored by the fact that I knew him only when he was elderly, vulnerable in his physically weakened state. I am sure this is at least partially true… Perhaps old age simply reduces people to a more ‘concentrated’ version of themselves.

Yet, all of this does not discount the fact that Gerald symbolized a generation of men who have taken life at face-value, unhindered and untainted by the Modern Epidemic of Knowledge: “I have known them all already, known them all / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons / I have measured out my life with coffee spoons…” wrote T.S. ELiot. Gerald existed outside of our age, our age where we have the capacity to “know” everything; everything is at our fingertips, thus our growth is accelerated and we return, disillusioned and drowned by an abundance of prerequisites and an infinity of possibilities. He was just an Anglo-Indian man — whose life, I’m sure, was measured out to an extent with spoons of chai masala and idli — but he lived out each day, tending to his sphere — his wife, his home, his motorcycle, his inimitable canine friends –without any fear that he had been cheated of any excitement or novelty, but simply, with great attention to what God had allotted him.

He once caught me at a gathering my Grandmother threw for the community, and spoke passionately about a road trip he went on in America. America the new and exciting, America the land of the free to the foreigner, America untainted by the political turmoil or racial rifts so obvious to one acclimated to it. It touched me to see such wonder in a man so old. Gerald was so often cooped up in his two-story yellow house flanked by his loyal fleabags, that imagining him somewhere else, in a car on a wide road in the desert plains, was nearly unfathomable.

In one hundred years, I wonder if there will be men like Gerald. Men who are able to look outwards, without having to look inward first, or at digital castles in the pixelated air. But there is hope: “Everywhere in the world,” wrote Steinbeck, “There are Mack and the boys.” Throughout the earth, there will always be people whose intentions, although unsophisticated and often tentative, are pure, lacking any ulterior motive or vainglory.

At times, I cannot really even come to terms with the fact that he is dead. I believe this is in part due to my religious upbringing, and in my depths I assume he lives on somewhere. But it is more than that. It is not because of overwhelming grief, but because his sheer presence was so integral to how I had conceived of the India I retreated to, when the tides of the West had reached an intolerable height. Gerald will always remain resolutely a part of my imagination, My India, for in a way his life was very much a metaphor for Her: wedded to her roots, caring for her stray, undaunted by illusion… yet ever open to the numinous.